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[Q&A] Jesse Leach on re-joining Killswitch Engage, the joy of the riff, and keeping the struggle alive

The lineup for this year's New England Metal & Hardcore Festival is pretty killer-- and the feather in its cap is most definitely the headlining gig on Sunday by Killswitch Engage, reunited with their original vocalist Jesse Leach.  Leach left the band in 2002; and while he kept himself extremely busy (with Seemless, The Empire Shall Fall, and most recently, Times of Grace with KSE's Adam D), and as the band he left soared in popularity with replacement vocalist Howard Jones, metalcore fans always held out hope that someday the original band would come back together.  Well, it's finally happened, and the band make their live re-debut with Leach at the festival on Sunday.  We ran a feature in this week's issue on Killswitch, but we had to leave out a lot of the conversation with Leach for reasons of space-- so here's the full conversation to whet your appetite for this weekend...

So how do you feel about playing the Worcester Metalfest next weekend?

We’re all pretty stoked on it. Right now I’m doing a lot of rehearsing on my own, because I live in New York and those guys live in Massachusetts. but I’m just running through the tracks and getting ready for MetalFest. But it’s so surreal, and I think it won’t really hit me until I step out on that stage, that’ll be the big moment, that’s going to be unreal.

Originally what happened we had sort of started working on rough ideas on the new Times of Grace ep, and at the same time Adam was finalizing demos for the new Killswitch. The Times of Grace was going to be more bluesy acoustic stuff, for an ep. But the Killswitch stuff took precedence when Howard left and especially when I decided to audition for Killswitch.

Yeah, I wanted to ask about that: why did you audition? That seems odd that you would have had to.

That was my idea-- that’s how I wanted to do it. There were a lot of reasons for it, but I’m trying to treat this with as much respect as I can. I mean, in reality, this has been a very successful band for hte past nine years, and yeah, I had something to do with it when I helped start the band, but I didn’t do what they did, I didn’t do what howard did. And I thought the best way to show these guys that I wanted to be part of this process was to audition. And it wasn’t just to prove it to the band, it was to prove it to myself. And when I go out there onstage, I’m gonna be singing a bunch of Howard’s songs. I have to-- those were the songs this band on the map! So I had to put myself in a headspace that I might not have put myself in if I just walked into the gig. So it was a challenge, I challenged myself to sing these songs, and I truly started to fall in love with these songs. I have to admit, I’m not a huge metal guy, I love old metal I guess but I’ve never been a modern metal guy, it doesn’t excite me. I’m more of a punk/hardcore kid.

Re-visiting this band and this material, are you struck at all by how much things have changed, how much metal has changed in the nine years since you left Killswitch?

Metal has changed, but I’ve changed as well. And that’s what’s exciting about rejoining this band and doing the new record. I’ve always been a fan of the music that they call metalcore, this crossbreeding of hardcore and metal, but what passes for metalcore today I’m not a fan of. It’s been a by-numbers watered down thing. I mean, God Forbid, In Flames, Mastodon, these are metalcore bands that I love, so I’m speaking in general terms. But most new metalcore doesn’t grab me, it doesn’t have the conviction that I used to see, when people had something to say, had messages, went against the grain, fight for individuality no matter what society says, and the music as a whole has turned into something popular that is with the grain, that is part of society, and the revolution got dulled and doesn’t really do anything for me.

I mean, some of the riffs of good and the music is good, and I don’t want to sound like an elitist here, but to me it doesn't hold the energy that it once did. But that being said, I’m part of it to, I’ve been doing music all along, and what’s most important to me is the message, the message and emotional conviction. And that’s why I’m so excited to work with Killswitch, especially the way they’ve been blending this soulful R&B feel with the whole metalcore thing. I mean, the stuff that Howard came up with, these awesome songs like “Rose of Sharon” or “Sorrow”, you can sense the conviction in his voice but it doesn’t come off like bleeding heart emo, he walked the line without getting sappy, and it was a challenge to get into that headspace and do those songs justice.

I’m a different person than I was a decade ago, but it all makes sense to me now.

In what way-- how does it make sense to you?

It’s hard to put my finger on it, but to be honest with you, I’ve been doing a lot of going back in preparing for this. Listening to early Killswitch has made me listen to old Unearth, for example, and I think “What was it about those times?” Listening to those old seven-inches, trying to recapture that spirit. And it wasn’t just a musical thing, there was something socially going on, something conscious, like we had to rebel. There was a war going on, just this helpless feeling of being in your teens and early twenties back then. I knew that corruption was going on, I wasn’t into the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, no one was speaking for me, and I still think it’s that way!

So that spirit of the Reagan era influenced a generation, the second wave of hardcore kids. And you look at bands like Integrity and Overcast, and straight edge bands like Unbroken, the metal riffs started showing up, the Slayer riffs, and hardcore added the dynamics that weren’t there before, the breakdowns, the buildups, the singalongs, the gang vocals, worked with the more intricate riffs. Because hardcore’s all about being simple and dynamic, the singalong, the message, shove it down someone’s throat, and metal had more technique to it, and that intrigued hardcore kids who wanted to push it to the next level.

Integrity had a huge influence to me, they were pretty much a metal band but their roots were in hardcore, they were the first band to fuse those styles. They were so fast, like hardcore, but they were unmistakably metal. And I’ll be honest, when I first heard Integrity, I was in my hardcore phase, so if you used double bass or had long hair, I wouldn’t listen. And then a few years later, that resistance went out the window. We all realized that there can be metal kids, hardcore kids all at the same show doing pile-ons, and it just happened. Something about that time was really exciting.

Another band I have to mention is Rorschach; they recently did some reunion shows and i still felt the excitement I felt years ago. When music gets popular and MTV and that whole popular corporate thing get ahold of something, it comes become marketable, it becomes money, it becomes business. And bands sign to labels get more money, get tour buses, get bigger budgets, all these things started to happen. That’s when the edges started to dull and the music wasn’t about the cause and the struggle, because why struggle, you’re accepted!

That’s interesting-- especially with the way metalcore became popularized in the wake of your stint in Killswitch.

Yeah, I mean, there were bands that were used to playing VFW halls, playing to crowds that maybe, if they’re big, will be 500-800 people. And that’s a totally different scene than when you’re going on at Ozzfest to way way more people. You can’t do the same performance and connect with things like you did in those smaller venues. And I’m learning this myself, because my first tour bus tour was last year with Times of Grace, first time that I slept on a tour bus and played to thousands of people, prior to that I’ve always been a club guy. When you move to a big stage, youre performance style has to change, you have to make it bigger. And when you move to a bigger stage, with a metal/hardcore hybrid, metal takes over. When we were all younger and saw those big rock bands and big metal bands, they were putting on big shows with lights and pyrotechnics, and that’s how you keep the audience. A guy who can barely see you onstage, he’s not excited unless he sees something big, lights and smoke machines and whatnot. And that eventually changes the sound because you want to make something theatrical so that everyone in that place can feel that music too. And you work the crowd differently, it’s something that I had to learn.

One thing that was kind of lame about the whole metalcore thing was that, initially, so many influences were instantly unacceptable or uncool, especially anything older. I mean, aside from maybe Soilent Green tossing in Skynyrd and ZZ Top riffs, it just wasn’t allowed. But Killswitch was never part of that orthodoxy, really.

Bands like Mastodon, or even Killswitch, they started incorporating rock, it wasn’t just metal or hardcore or technical metal, it was a return of rock. Riffs! And that’s what I love, I love love love that stuff, that’s what I listened to before hardcore. Like Van Halen, Adam is a huge Van Halen fan. It’s simplifying the metal aspect and leaving room, adding space in the music, and it’s great.

Play good music and don’t be afraid to push genre boundaries and just keep it exciting. To me, that was part of the excitement of why I even started playing music. How can what I do now hold the same excitement as the past? That’s the challenge.

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